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Hotels and food waste: What happens to breakfast buffet leftovers?

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Is there anything more delightful, more wondrous to wake up to than a hotel breakfast buffet?

Stay at even a modestly snazzy big-city hotel, wander down from your room and behold, piles of exotic fruits, waffles, crispy bacon and hash browns, bakery items galore, croissants, Bircher muesli, nuts and chia puddings for the alfalfa male and female, fresh juices and possibly even an Oriental section if the hotel has the clientele. Yet on a buffet table, as much as half that food is going to end up in a dumpster, either uneaten from plates or else past its use-by date.

What’s the problem?

Food production is responsible for about 24 per cent of all heat-trapping global gas emissions. It also accounts for an estimated 70 per cent of biodiversity loss, 70 per cent of freshwater use and half of all soil erosion.

As much as half of the food in breakfast buffets is going to end up in a dumpster.

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As much as half of the food in breakfast buffets is going to end up in a dumpster.

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So what, we need to eat – but according to the United States Food and Drug Administration, about a third of the nation’s food supply is wasted. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations agrees, that one-third wastage figure applies across the globe. If that wasted food was directed to those who need it world hunger would evaporate in an instant.

As well as a loss to those who don’t have enough on their plate, wasted food accounts for about 8 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste was a country it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the US. There is also a secondary effect since food waste sent to landfills generates methane. Although methane has a shorter atmospheric life span than carbon dioxide, about a decade as opposed to a couple of centuries, it has a greater impact on global warming since methane is a far more effective heat trap than other greenhouse gases.

In the US about 40 per cent of all food waste comes from households and about the same is generated by restaurants and hotels. The figure is the same for Asia but in the European Union, where buffets and catering tend to be far less lavish, the figure is much lower, with the hotel and restaurant sectors combined responsible for an estimated 14 per cent of total food waste.

The buffet is a staple of a hotel stay.

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The buffet is a staple of a hotel stay.

The nub of the hotel problem – the buffet

According to Winnow, a UK-based company that tracks food waste in commercial kitchens, on average half of the food displayed in hotel buffets is wasted, with the finger pointed at the breakfast buffet as the major culprit. Breakfasts are often available until 10 in the morning and the buffet needs to look as fresh, fulsome and enticing for the late arrivals as it does for the early risers.

Because breakfast is usually included in the tariff, diners are inclined to take more than they eat. As well as those half-full plates left at vacant tables, perishable items that are left on the buffet table including fresh fruits, fish, processed meats and cheeses and cooked dishes such as eggs, bacon, oats and rice congee form a big part of the buffet. They’re going to be tossed at the end of breakfast service.

Distributing some of that leftover food to those who need it is one solution, but food safety regulations mean that only 10-15 per cent of unused food can be donated or re-purposed. InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) has been the most proactive of Australia’s hotel groups, working in partnership with OzHarvest, Australia’s leading food rescue charity.

Since IHG signed up as an ‘Awesome Partner’ with OzHarvest in September 2019, the group has rescued around 1500kgs from IHG hotels and resorts nationwide, equal to almost 5000 meals. Nationally, OzHarvest collects around 13,000 kgs of food annually from around 50 hotels, equal to almost 1000 meals per week.

Measuring waste

Measuring food waste is the first step in getting to grips with the problem. Since August 2019 IHG has been using Winnow technology in a number of its Australian hotels to monitor and track food waste. The data includes waste by weight, by dollar value and the opportunity cost of meals lost to waste.

The results are illuminating. According to Nicole Crowley, IHG’s PR Manager for Australasia and Japan, sausages are the single food item that contributes the highest value to waste. InterContinental Sydney is the first IHG hotel in the world to implement Winnow Vision, an enhanced artificial intelligence system claimed to deliver cost savings of up to 8 per cent.

Other hotel groups such as Hilton also use Leanpath, another food tracking system that claims to reduce waste by up to 50 per cent. Through its Decrease, Donate, Divert model, Hilton aims to cut food waste across its 6000 hotels worldwide by 50 per cent within 10 years.

Food waste reduction strategies

Reducing the size or depth of serving dishes, replacing some of the plated fresh food items with floral decorations and replacing some of the buffet with live stations where food is cooked to order are some of the strategies that hotels are using to reduce wastage from the breakfast buffet. A study by the UK’s Small Plate Movement showed that bigger plates encouraged diners to fill their plates with more food, and more gets wasted. Another study found that cutting plate size, from 24cm to 21cm, resulted in a reduction in food waste of almost 20 per cent.

Other waste

It’s not just food waste that worries the hotel industry. Plastic bin liners and those small plastic containers of bath gel, shampoo and conditioner are a major waste item for hotels. Whether those bathroom amenity products are barely used or empty, after the guest checks out they get tossed. They’re almost impossible to recycle and they never get refilled.

While a hotel might be motivated to cut down on food waste by the financial imperative, that’s not the case with in-room plastics. Plastics are cheap, they’re convenient and fast for housekeeping staff to replace and that’s a saving for the hotel’s bottom line. The alternatives, such as bulk dispensers for bathroom products, are more expensive to service and not enough guests are prepared to pay a higher price for a hotel that demonstrates environmental responsibility, but change is coming.

In 2019 IHG announced a switch to bulk-sized bathroom amenities across all its 5600-plus properties by 2021, which includes brands such as InterContinental, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn.

Soap is another matter. It’s estimated that hotels toss around five million bars of soap every day. That soap can be collected, processed and reused, and clean hands help prevent worm infections, respiratory diseases and diarrhoea. The recent coronavirus has underlined the importance of hand hygiene, with medical opinion recommending that washing your hands before eating is the simplest way to protect yourself from infection.

– Traveller

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